I realize there are different forms that a qualifying exam can take in CS / ECE PhD programs.

In departments where this does not take the form of a comprehensive written exam:

  • What is the role that the qualifying exam fulfills in the PhD program in your department?
  • What is the approach taken in your department?
  • What are the perceived advantages / weaknesses of the approach?

2 Answers 2


Where I did my Ph.D., we effectively had no written qualifying exam. Instead, students were expected to gather high marks following a certain complex distribution of classes within the first two years (there was also another component, involving giving a research talk, but that was more equivalent to defending a thesis proposal). If you could not achieve enough high marks, then you had to fall back on a more traditional qualifier for whatever subject areas you couldn't pass out of via classes. I never knew anyone who didn't just get the high marks, and the rumor amongst the students was that if you had to use the fall-back, the professors were sure to fail you because they'd be grumpy that they had to prepare a whole exam on your behalf.

The rationale for this method comes from the department's goal for the qualifying exam: ensuring that students have a sufficiently strong grounding across a sufficiently broad area of expertise. Given this goal, why can't high marks in key graduate-level classes establish expertise just as well as a special non-class exam? Adding a special exam just increases the stress on students and the burden of preparation on faculty.

As a student, it was certainly much appreciated---if you're in a Ph.D. program, you're probably pretty good at classes, and so being able to tackle the whole qualifier thing just by being good at classes was quite a relief, especially compared to the stress that people I knew were going through elsewhere. I think the faculty really liked it too, because they could deal with the whole qualifier thing just by teaching the classes they wanted to teach anyway.

As for down-sides... I suppose it means the faculty have to trust each other enough to believe that high marks actually mean a student is qualified? Other than that, I really don't see any down-sides. Personally, I think that the traditional qualifying exam is essentially academic hazing and should be replaced by methods like this.

  • What about oral examinations? Part of the value is to establish that a student has sufficient communication skills with sophisticated material.
    – GSat
    Mar 8, 2015 at 14:25
  • @GSat In my program, that was the research talk part, equivalent to defending a thesis proposal. I simply see zero benefit to written qualifying examinations.
    – jakebeal
    Mar 8, 2015 at 14:27

Where I did my PhD in ECE, we did not have a comprehensive written exam: we had to do research on a topic of interest to the student and the exam committee, write up a "conference paper" on the findings of the research, write up a separate paper on engineering research ethics, and give an oral presentation on the research topic. Questions from the qualifying exam committee during the presentation could cover both the research topic/findings and the engineering ethics paper written by the student.

To clarify, the research activities associated with the qualifying exam did not entail a formal research proposal: the formal research proposal at my previous department came at the preliminary exam stage. For the qualifier, researching a topic essentially meant different things to different students depending on how far along they were. For those students already working on a research project (which was/seemed to be a majority of students), the research write-up/presentation dealt with the findings up to that point and future directions (which naturally helped the student prepare for the prelim). For those students not fitting the above description, they would choose an area of interest to both the student and the committee (i.e., a research area where they see themselves working in the not-so-distant future with one or more faculty on the committee) and summarize the state-of-the-art, possible problems to tackle, along with some possible solutions/research directions.

What is the role that the qualifying exam fulfills in the PhD program in your department?

To ensure that the student:

  1. Is capable of doing independent research,
  2. Possesses the skills to present technical findings, both written and orally,
  3. Understands the ethical considerations that go into research/publishing, and
  4. Has a good command of the relevant technical material, from ECE graduate-level fundamentals to the state-of-the-art in the chosen topical area.

What are the perceived advantages / weaknesses of the approach?

I think the goals of the qualifying exam listed above were fairly-well addressed by the exam requirements. As for the downsides in the approach, some students were not yet capable of doing research at the level required by the exam. So I think our program weeded out some students who had the potential to do quality research but, unfortunately, were not "up to snuff" for their qualifier.

  • I assume this exam was different from a proposal. So what did it mean to "research a topic"?
    – GSat
    Mar 8, 2015 at 18:14

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